Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Orleans


“You better take a map an’ the directions” said the driver of the rental car bus, pressing a map into M’s hands, when I politely declined his offer for directions.  “Cos’ you gon’ get lost, I ‘ll guarantee that. Welcome to the house of Hertz.”.  And with those words of wisdom behind us,  directions dialed into a GPS, we are on 10East that stretches back all the way to LA, now with flat verdant grass that reminds me of India, but with dead banana leaves and trees that did nto make is past the hard frost that set in a few months earlier.
In twenty five years I had never visited New Orleans, the most “Carribean” of the cities in the mainland US, with its colors, a laid back mentality, and a cuisine all its own.  The day of our arrival, we took a walk in the late afternoon sun, past elegant high ceilinged cafes in dignified buildings, giant floor to ceiling windows open, cotton curtains fluttering onto the sidewalk, the slanted afternoon sulight streaming into large airy rooms with tables laid out with white tablecloth and china; past vibrant white buildings, and open brickwork fa├žades with solid wooden shutters.
Staying at a hotel bordering the French Quarters district, the old , touristy, and musical heart of New Orleans, we stroll into the district for what would be one of two phenomenal meals  that I have had in a while.  Deanie’s Seafood is a family style restaurant with a huge bar, enormous seating, and a commendable ability to keep the tables moving.  Noted for hearty food, we have seafood gumbo, barbecue shrimp, a medley of crabs, and deep fried crawfish.  These were exotic flavors for us, M stumped--unable to deconvolute the condiments and spices.  This is a fish state and city, a homecoming for a Bengali, a “put me on the train Mama” kind of place for the fish lover, where you can get fish every which way you want—blackened, gravied, baked, deep fried, grilled, new takes on an old friend, a plunge into a gastronomic pit lined with seafood. 
Alcohol is allowed on the streets in this city and Bourbon Street which runs through the middle of the French Quarters is one where the crowds throng to let go, in a drunken revelry that has a trajectory like a powerpoint scrawl object pinchpointed at every bar along the way.  This is a linear street party, 15 minutes worth of walk long, a giant all night meat market with dissolute hardfaced characters and eager tourists bent on getting drunk: the narrow road lined with old houses full of character and verandas of ornate ironwork, from where groups of young men survey the street, granting the gift of beaded necklaces to hapless women tourists who flash bare themselves for the privilege.  There seems an utter pointlessless to this revelry, this giant tribal fiesta of fake smiles and pumped up revelry but it seems to keep the economy of the place going, the smoky bars teetering with amped out rock and country, fossified old songs and chords and lead that seem to energize the crowd inside that sways like a wave.  A sad eyed Chinese girl encourages passers by to visit a gentlemen’s club, a man with a placard is ushering in folks to try their hand on a mechanical bull.  And all of this, in a seeming lack of violence and crime, enforced by a phalanx of police officers and security personnel at almost every cross street bedecked with guns, radios, handcuffs--the tools of their trade. A young Indian couple with a visiting father, a venerable gentleman with the inquisitive yet graceful looks of the aging visitor, pass us by.  I wonder at the curious judgement of the couple for taking this hapless elderly visitor and heading in the direction of the gentleman’s club and the showdown with the beads.
At the edge of the French Quarters lies Frenchmen Street with wonderful live music along its length.  New Orleans holds a piece of the heart of American music, and while I have heard this music for years, it has been as an outsider with little context, never exposed to its organic underbelly--a glimpse of which I received in New Orleans that night.  As you walk its tidy yet unsanitized old streets with well maintained two hundred year old houses, musicians on street corners and balconies sit singing and strumming well worn guitars.  It was the sheer musicality of the place that got me, that balanced the madness of Bourbon Street, this city that has been the eye of so many songs, from such varied genres, from Louis Armstrong to Arlo Guthrie, to Deep Purple, and to Mark Knopfler.

Frenchmen Street at night has a collection of bars that play music that ranges from jazz (The Astral Project played at the Snug Harbor that night), to more youthful stuff (Shilpa Ray and the Happy Hookers, a harmonium wielding throaty young Bengali woman from Brooklyn was to appear on Monday).  We pass a cluster of musicians jamming on the steps of a house by a sidewalk, the singer vigorously playing an acoustic guitar in a sleeveless undershirt and jeans.  A little distance away a pair of women strum their chords singing in clear, unvarnished voices.  Small groups of young men and women in their twenties with unkempt hair and beards, unencumbered—apparently—by anything other than their love for the present moment; these men and women so reminiscent of the Bauls and their Khepis, wandering musicians of Bengal who travel from festival to festival, singing about much of the same underlying themes, their guttural voices and their hard tempered instruments conveying a palpable reality to the passer by.

Jazz was born here, and reminders of its tradition appear in Preservation Hall, a small venue with no amplification, no food served; a place kept in clean though deliberate dilapidation as a homage to its past, its walls decked with fading portraits of past musicians such as Erma Thomas (whose “picture flattered her true looks”)  who had played there in the sixties; where the lines for entry run around the corner on a Saturday night and the cover charge is a modest 12 dollars.
One evening we walked to the Mississippi.  It is an industrial sight: on the other side of the water there are giant cranes, to lift containers from passing boats.  A saxophonist sits on a collapsible chair playing a slow tune. Its waters lap the wooden embankment gently as children play on the steps.  The Mississippi has the heft and feel of an Indian river, perhaps because—like the Ganga and the Brahmaputra—it reared commerce and life along its banks for the past centuries; and like these rivers, it became part and parcel of the folklore, the music, and the literature of its people. Paul Robeson made famous “Ol’ Man River”, which Bhupen Hazarika adapted  into Assamese and Bengali versions for the Brahmaputra (Luit) and Ganga that became as, if not more, famous than Robeson’s version for the Mississippi—these songs berating the river for its apathy to the human sufferings by its banks.
We mark the day of our departure with a fascinating lunch at a place called Cochon, part of a butchery, that specializes—as its name implies—on the pig.  It is a swanky place with serious food and blond wood furniture.  There was roast pork ribs, head cheese, a terrine made of pork cheeks and a tongue salad, and a boucherie plate of smoked and cooked cuts from various locations of the pig.  These were porcine delights that I had never had, nor intended to have till this fateful afternoon.  I am no expert in American cooking, but to my uninitiated tastes, Louisiana cooking appears the most layered in its flavors, the most sophisticated in its textures compared to any other form of American cooking.

My residual memories of the place include a hot spring afternoon that we left behind at the Hertz parking lot, and a bus stop with a drum filled with chipped ice and bottles of chilled water for the travelers. Waiting at the long check-in line, we encounter a couple of young men, wearing sailor outfits, sailor caps, and frilly, feminine, thigh length tutus.  They were going about their business with all seriousness and, when asked, claimed that they were Scotsmen merely sporting the colors of their clan.